Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 109 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 18th, 2010
Can we know the truth?
"So you're not a complete idiot."
Martin (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) is an American student attending Oxford University. He's about to begin work on his thesis, and is desperately hoping to convince the esteemed mathematics professor Arthur Seldom (John Hurt, The Proposition) to serve as his mentor during the process. He realizes the chances of this are slim, but he fudges the odds a little by renting a room from an elderly woman named Mrs. Eagleton (Anna Massey, Frenzy) who just so happens to be an older friend of Seldom's. Mrs. Eagleton is in rather poor health these days, and is cared for by her devoted daughter Beth (Julie Cox, Children of Dune). Beth finds Martin an interesting young man and quickly develops feelings for him. Unfortunately, Martin has eyes for the lovely Lorna (Leonor Watling, Bad Education).
One day, Martin is returning home from class and is surprised to bump into Arthur Seldom on the doorsteps of Mrs. Eagleton's house. The two briefly introduce themselves, then proceed into the house together. When they step inside, they are horrified to discover that Mrs. Eagleton has been murdered. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that the killer has left behind the first piece of a mathematical puzzle, sinisterly suggesting that this will only be the first in a series of crimes. Putting their combined intellectual skills to work, Martin and Seldom attempt to solve the puzzle in the hopes of putting a stop to the inevitable crimes.
The Oxford Murders is the first film that I've seen from Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia, and it demonstrates successfully that Iglesia is a man with tremendous potential. He has crafted a thriller that often feels like the work of Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma; an ambitious movie with considerable visual flair and some genuinely terrific scenes. He ambitiously attempts to fuse big, challenging ideas with the surface-level thrills of a murder mystery, and draws good performances out of actors John Hurt and Elijah Wood. Having said all of that, I'm sorry to report that The Oxford Murders is a great big clunky mess; an intellectual belly flop of a movie.
The biggest problem is the screenplay by Iglesia and Jorge Guerricaechevarria (based on a novel by Guillermo Martinez). Though both men are experienced professionals who have been working in the film industry for some time, the screenplay feels as if it were written by a mathematician in the same way that Hitchcock's painfully dated Spellbound feels like it was written by a psychiatrist and Albert Lewin's much-too-chatty Pandora and the Flying Dutchman feels like it was written by a professor of mythology. It's good at dealing with the subject that fuels the film, but very clumsy when it comes to the practicalities of delivering compelling drama.
As with the aforementioned Spellbound and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Oxford Murders takes an overbearing, "tell everything you show," approach to the material. I couldn't help but shake my head in dismay at the opening twenty minutes, in which the characters spew forth awkward exposition and personal motivations at an alarming rate. That's rough, but not as bad as the ending in which one character turns into Encylopedia Brown, providing us with a lengthy rundown of who did what to whom and why. This approach can actually work if the details are compelling and surprising, but in this instance the actual answers to the mystery are silly and unpersuasive. Essentially, almost all of the film's problems boil down to the fact that the writers have no knack for capturing human behavior -- not in the way they speak and not in the way they behave.
By the time the film reaches its conclusion, it feels like a sub-par variation on The Da Vinci Code. That's too bad, because there are actually some compelling ideas delivered along the way that deserve far more credit than anything cooked up by Dan Brown. I was genuinely absorbed during the thoughtful conversations between Seldom and Martin, as they debate the specifics of where (if anywhere) some form of absolute truth can be found, along with Seldom's brazen claim that, "philosophy is dead." Iglesias has the right idea of where to go with this, turning their academic debates into a real-world experiment with human lives at stake. Suddenly their opinions feel far less like disposable postulating and take on relevance beyond the personal enlightenment of our lead characters. Sadly, once Iglesias commits himself to fusing the academic ideas with the ongoing crime investigation, things turn silly quickly and the characters betray themselves in grating ways.
Watching John Hurt chew the scenery is easily one of the stronger elements of The Oxford Murders, as the actor remains compelling even when his character runs into some unfortunate dialogue. Elijah Wood provides sturdy counterpoint as the quieter, gentler Martin, not making an enormous impression but handling the role with confidence. Two small supporting turns stand out for being so over-the-top: a frighteningly effective turn from Repo Man director Alex Cox as a deranged former colleague of Seldom's, and a hyperactively annoying performance by Burn Gorman (Torchwood) as one of Martin's fellow students. Anna Massey makes a strong impression in her abbreviated screen time, while Martin's two potential love interests aren't given enough development to really register.
At least the solid 1080p/2.35:1 hi-def transfers allows viewers to fully appreciate the strong visuals offered in The Oxford Murders, as the film's slightly gloomy, greenish palette sets a splendid atmosphere of mystery. With intriguing angles, long tracking shots and blatantly Hitchcockian compositions, the film looks dramatically better than it actually is. The level of fine detail is excellent and blacks are satisfactorily deep. There's a minor level of natural grain present, adding an appropriately filmic quality without becoming obtrusive. Audio is strong, though for the most part it's a relatively subdued track. The opening World War II flashback scene is a powerful, immersive experience, but rest of the film tends to be quiet and dialogue-centered. The insinuating Roque Banos score is given a rich mix, occasionally rearing its head and rattling the room a little bit. Supplements are limited to a handful of EPK-style featurettes: "The Making of The Oxford Murders" (17 minutes), "Criminal Math of Oxford" (10 minutes), "Interviews" (13 minutes), "The Oxford Murders at Abbey Road" (2 minutes), "Waiting for Alex" (18 minutes), "Professor Kalman" (4 minutes), "Set Design" (3 minutes), "Kalman's Makeup" (4 minutes), "HDNet: A Look at The Oxford Murders" (5 minutes) and "Behind the Scenes of The Oxford Murders" (6 minutes).
The Oxford Murders is a potentially compelling thriller that misfires in way too many areas. The Blu-ray is nice enough.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R